When We Remembered Zion
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!’
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
This heart-wrenching, sorrowful, rage-filled Psalm contains the most raw emotion of any of the Psalms. Indeed, perhaps few passages in Scripture surpass it. As the Israelites mourned their lost city; mourned their Promised Land; mourned their destroyed Temple; as they hung their harps in Babylon not by choice but by force, their situation is made worse by their captors’s taunts: “Sing us a song! We know you are such wonderful singers!” How could they, the People of the LORD, sing their songs of praise when all they had praised was gone, perhaps forever? While holding steadfast to their trust in God, they raged against the mockery, the loss, and most of all, the fear that their identity – “Should I forget Jerusalem” – would be lost forever. They promised vengeance. Vengeance upon the treacherous Edomites, their warring neighbors who had, no doubt, aided the Babylonians in the conquest and destruction of Jerusalem. This rage spills over in to praise for infanticide against their enemies-now-their-captors. Few passages of Scripture strike the reader as roughly as verse 9.
We North American Christians – of whatever stripe, denomination, however we name ourselves – are increasingly finding ourselves like the captive children of Israel. The situation is made worse, spiritually and psychologically, because rather than being dragged in to exile in a foreign land, ours is a captivity in the midst of our very land. Let’s take a look at just one statistic. According to the Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2012, from 1990 to 2008 (the latest date for which the Abstract could make estimates), the number of Americans citing “No Religion Specified” had grown from 14 million to 34 million. In terms of percentages, that’s nearly double, from 8% to 14% in 18 years.
The past two generations have seen church membership and attendance change from being a part of general sociability, even a mark of status depending upon the denomination, to one that is of decreasing relevance. We’ve tried gimmicks and formulas and gurus and those few successful pastors who’ve managed to grow their churches, yet it seems we reach an ever-dwindling populace, not so much hostile – “Sing us a song!” – as apathetic.
Add to this a philosophical and cultural change in much of North America, one often described as “mistrust of meta-narratives”, and it’s like a perfect storm of . . . what? not opposition? irrelevance? . . . and we in all our churches sit and weep, our harps hung up by the waters of the Susquehanna, the Delaware, the Rock, the Roanoke, the Potomac, the Mississippi, and the Colorado, wondering how these places that within the lifetimes of so many had been not only familiar but friendly, had suddenly become so strange. How do we Christians, exiled in this land now foreign to our eyes and hearts, who can no longer hear our story of love and sin and redemption and a lived faith, sing our songs?
I think we see the varying reactions around us. Some demand a return to how things were. That church membership become something important; that the social and moral teachings of previous generations enjoy pride of place once again; that we ignore that our words are a foreign language to so many of our fellow Americans, and get out the message of sin and death, fear of hell, the transports of joy that come from dying in the faith. This story is the story of many; why not, they reason, insist it be the story for all?
As for the changes around us, they insist they are, at the very least, the result of sin, if not of direct diabolical influence. The choices are stark, yet simple. The choice is ours to make.
Others, however, hear the words of the exilic prophet Jeremiah:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord. – Jeremiah 29:4-9
Changed circumstances are not apocalyptic disaster; they might not even demand a refusal to accommodate to the new reality. On the contrary, we might well be called to live and serve even as exiles, to make homes and lives in places now strange to us. Our mission and ministry, perhaps, might well be best served by living and loving our neighbors as neighbors, even when who we are as members of Christ’s Body is as strange to them as the exiled Israelites must have seemed to the Babylonians.
We might well be a people increasingly foreign in our land. That does not mean we wage war against that land. In exile, the LORD called the people to live their lives, and in that way to show themselves to be a worthy people. Ministry in a hostile environment need not call forth a hostile response. It might, instead, invite us to think and live as who we are – the people of God – and therefore minister just by our living, in support of our neighbors, our communities, our cities, and our nation. This might speak much louder than the strange words of sin and resurrection that, far too often, have no translation in our new surroundings. Let us, then, seek the welfare of the communities of which we are a part. It is who an exiled people are called to be.